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The Iconic Wellington Container House Gets a New Lease on Life

Updated: Jun 27


Wellington Builders | Renovations | Construction | Design & Architecture Services | Environmentally Conscious | Wellington Roofing & Waterproofing | Wellington Painters

Completed paint job by Orkney Painting + Decorating - exterior of the Wellington Container House

Recently, Orkney Painting & Decorating had the privilege of repainting the iconic Wellington Container House in Happy Valley. During the project, we had the pleasure of getting to know its current owner, Graham Tilson, and asked if we could share a snapshot of his interesting life’s journey with our readers. Graham agreed, and the following is a very brief overview of his life and how he became the proud owner of this unique piece of Wellington architecture. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed chatting with him!

Owner of the Wellington Container House

Graham Tilson relocated to New Zealand from the UK in 1979 to work on the construction of the Huntly Power Station. Later, thanks to his previous experience at a hydro scheme at Rheidol, near Aberystwyth in mid-Wales, Graham was headhunted from Huntly for a role at a hydro station on the Rangitaiki River. The position required someone to supervise the completion, commissioning, and operation of the power station. It was owned by the Bay of Plenty Electric Power Board with head offices in Whakatane. Graham was Generation Engineer for some three years when he was appointed Chief Engineer to the Board, responsible for all engineering matters including the distribution of electricity to the four main centres of Whakatane, Opotiki, Kawerau and Murupara. He was then appointed General Manager in 1989.

When the electricity distribution industry was privatized in 1991, Graham decided to move on to other opportunities as he felt it was time for a change. He went to work at the Huntly, Meremere and Marsden Power Stations as Technical Manager before seeking a more challenging job.

This led Graham to Abu Dhabi. He applied for and was given the job of managing the commissioning of the Al Taweelah “B” Power and Desalination Complex, 50 kilometres northeast of Abu Dhabi in 1994. Graham then took on the role of Superintendent for Operations and Maintenance for both the Al Taweelah “A” and “B” plants. He was appointed Managing Director and Deputy Chairman of the Al Mirfa Power Company in 1998 with the remit of commercializing the company assets in a private market, forming a limited company with the assets and then selling it. During this time, his wife Patricia (Pat) frequently travelled between their homes in the Orkney Islands (Scotland), Hamilton (NZ), and Al Mirfa, enjoying a life without winters for many years!

Graham enjoyed his life and work in Abu Dhabi (and a brief two-year stint in Pakistan building another power station) and garnered the respect of his colleagues. This was obvious when he wanted to resign, but his managers wouldn’t let him go. It took almost a year for them to finally come to terms with it and accept his resignation! By this time, Graham was 69 and suffering from Parkinson’s, so it was time to return to New Zealand and be closer to family.

Back in New Zealand, Graham found a plot of land near Kawhia; a serene location that overlooked the Mangaora Estuary and towards the Kawhia Harbour. He dreamed of building a holiday home there but because this location was prone to break-ins, he knew he needed something more robust and impenetrable than a standard house. The solution? A shipping container. Something that could be locked when not in use, and not look like a home to the casual passer-by.

Constructing the home was not an easy task, especially when the container transporter operator refused to maneuver up the narrow track to the site, leaving Graham to call in a digger to drag the container up!

Over the next several years, Graham worked tirelessly on the home. He added plumbing, electricity with solar panels, a small wood-burning stove, bunks, a simple kitchen prep area, and a deck. The experience was deeply fulfilling for him, and when he sold the home to friends on moving to Wellington, he left a part of himself (and Pat's ashes) behind.

The great lockdown of 2020 was not kind to many of us. Pat had passed away in 2017 and Graham had been isolating on his own. As soon as the lockdown lifted, his daughter invited him to move to Wellington so that he would be closer to her.

Although it was hard to leave the home he had built with Pat and their bach in Kawhia, he felt this was the right thing to do, so he packed his bags again and shifted in October of 2020. Graham’s search for a new home had led him to Wellington's famous Container House in Happy Valley. The house, which is made up of three 40-foot refrigerated shipping containers, spans an area of 90 sq metres. While some may find this an unusual choice for a home, it was a perfect fit for Graham and brought back fond memories of his container home back in Kawhia.

He had an appreciation of the unique features of the Wellington Container House; the exposed corrugated floor, which was levelled with concrete poured into the aluminium rails forming the pallet support base; the sturdy tabletop made from one of the original container doors; the kitchen cabinetry made from Form Board (resin-impregnated plywood), and the peepholes that give a view of the street (see photo). All these things add character and tell a story that makes this home so unique.

The Container House was built in 2000 by industrial designer and lecturer, Ross Stevens, with the third container being added in 2003, and had remained unmodified until this year. Due to mobility issues, Graham installed an internal lift which provides him with easy access to each floor. In 2023, Dion Basile of DB Construction Ltd (whose company had built the lift and carried out major renovations), contacted Orkney Painting & Decorating to repaint the entire exterior of the house.

The team got started on removing the large stickers on the topmost container (see before and after photos below). They had been stuck on hard for years, and a gentle scraping proved not to be enough to take them off. The painters then tried using a glue remover spray to soften the glue, but the stickers still refused to budge! Eventually, the team resorted to using a heat gun and scraper to remove them, which turned out to be successful. As you can imagine, this was a meticulous process and took us longer than we had anticipated.

Next, the painters needed to remove the patches of moss on the house. This was resolved by using Resene’s Moss and Mould treatment. Once the stickers, moss, and rust were removed (see photos below), the Orkney Painting & Decorating team applied a layer of Rich Armour Zinc 110 primer, followed by Resene’s Galvo 1 primer. The rest of the house was sanded, and the first coat of paint was applied, followed later by the topcoat.

Graham chose Resene Cool Colour Lumbersider Ironsand for the exterior and Resene Metallic Effect Silver Aluminium 1 for the steel frames around the garage doors (all part of the Resene specified system for this mixed-substrate job). The result is stunning, and we are pleased to have played a part in preserving this home for many years to come.


The Wellington Container House - completed paint job by Orkney Painting + Decorating

It’s amazing how Graham’s life journey made the Container Home feel immediately like the perfect fit for him. It’s almost like his passions and memories drew him to this house. Which perhaps, goes to prove that when it comes to life’s biggest decisions, we are more often led by our hearts than our heads. It’s no surprise that a man who has spent his lifetime as an engineer, making a tremendous contribution to the power industry in NZ and abroad would eventually end up owning a house that is an engineering marvel – and one of New Zealand’s first-ever container homes.

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